05 March 2018

The Iguana War

I am at war with an iguana. It lives in my house. Or I live in its house. At this point I am not really sure. It is ancient and slow. It should have become tamale stuffing long ago. And yet, I cannot get rid of it. I have tried. I have gone to great, embarrassing and even murderous lengths. It is an endless dance. He lunges for my flowers and I chase him with my broom. He scurries away but he does not hide. He perches just beyond my reach, staring at me with his tired old eyes. And I see it; that look that says, “Gringo! Leave me alone! You’ve only just arrived.”  

That undersized dinosaur is right. I have only just arrived. Maybe that's why I haven't said much.

A local magazine publisher contacted me about writing an article: A New Arrival's Guide to Puerto Escondido. I started and I stopped. I realized that I had nothing to say beyond my own how and why. I'll finish the article (the publisher is a tough lady to say no to) but not until I've been here long enough to look back. Here is what I had to say about why:   

“I am drawn to the ocean and the chillness of beach towns. The Pacific Ocean in particular seems to be etched into my DNA. I am happiest when I am close enough to hear it crashing against the continent. And yet, beach towns always leave me grasping. They are places of escape and the culture they cultivate is one of escapism. It is sun and surf. It is chelas and chill. Art, history and reminders of both are for older places, places unwashed by the tides. What makes this stretch of the Mexican coastline so unique is that La Ciudad de Oaxaca is not far away. Oaxaca is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world. It has theatre, music and incredible food. It is a city fiercely proud of its own uniqueness. I am a beach bum. I am an artist. I am an extranjero. I am a traveler in love with the stories history hides. I have found a thousand places to love. But never anything like this. Oaxaca down to Puerto Escondido, across Mazunte and Zipolite and back up; that loop seems to have everything that I need to be happy for a very long time. But I didn’t know for sure. I couldn’t. I could only leap.”

*Things unsaid: I am overwriting and avoiding the original motivation because who wants to hear about that...

Beach culture + art heavy Oaxaca--that’s part of it. Great day trips and weekend escapes along the coast--that’s part of it too. A gut feeling about Mexico and in particular the state of Oaxaca--no question. But those are Margarita reasons--they are the things you say when people come to visit and your life is rocking right along and with the slowest of heartbeats you wax poetic. What sent me searching in the first place was far simpler than that; I was tired. I was tired of uncomfortable beds. I was tired of living in housing that I hadn't chosen. I was tired of packing up my life year after year. I wanted a home. And I wanted to be closer to family and friends.  

There are several beaches communities here, each of which has a different vibe. My first week in town, I wandered around the neighborhoods looking at apartments and trying to decide where I belonged. An area called La Punta seemed to be the best place to meet people and have a social life but it didn’t feel quite right. I was waiting for fuck yeah! And I found it on the other side of town in a quiet little community called Rinconada. I loved the neighborhood. I loved Carrizalillo, the neighborhood beach. And I found an amazing apartment--maybe--potentially. It was an unfinished shell with cement floors, spray painted lines where the bathroom and bedroom would be and incredible ocean views in every direction. It was my chance to make a home in a place without memories. I strung up a hammock, closed my eyes and imagined what my place would look like.

And then I went to war.

It started with the bougainvilleas. I bought the prettiest plant you have ever seen. It was a riot of pink blossoms; a symbol of my life in bloom. Then the flowers started disappearing. Naturally, I blamed myself. I watered it more and I watered it less. I gave it sun and I gave it shade. Nothing worked. I was on the verge of replacing my bougainvillea with an unkillable cactus when my enemy revealed himself for the first time. I came home from the market, laden with supplies, and found him with his claws on my flower pot eating pink blossoms faster than I eat cacahuates with a cold beer.

At first, I just stared, dull-eyed and dumb. And then, I yelled at him in English and Spanish. I said, “Hey! Hey! Stop eating my flowers. Fuera! Fuera!” I needed something to whack him with. I picked up a broom with stiff red bristles. I jabbed him in the ribs. I must have looked ridiculous. Thrust! Thrust! Parry! Mary Poppins the Musketeer. The iguana retreated. I ran into my bedroom and looked out the window. There he was, sunning himself on my balcony, out but not gone.

I could not stay home waiting for him to sneak in again. I had things to do. I had an apartment to furnish. I had a new home to explore. And most importantly, I needed to find a job.

I know that I have talked a lot about starting a business down here. And I may. But what I am most interested in is permanence. I want to be able to trust in the foundations of my life here. And how I lay those foundations will be subject to this and only this: whatever I achieve in this life will come through freedom of time and chasing my own curiosity, not the hours I spend earning money. So, for now I am focused on freelance writing. I write children’s stories for an English language magazine in China and blogs for a TEFL school in Ireland. It is work that I can do from anywhere. I don't know if it will be temporary or a new path. I suspect that I'll end up dabbling in a few things. But I am determined to play it slow. I'm here and I'm happy, so let's see what patience brings me. Anyway, about that iguana.

For weeks, we battled to a standstill. He would creep out onto my balcony and I would chase him away with my broom. He feared the broom but he did not fear me. I needed advice. I started with the construction workers across the street. They saw me approaching and immediately started laughing. Clearly, they had seen my broom antics. They said, “Iguanas are delicious. Kill it. Tamales!” That felt a bit extreme so I asked the lady that runs my favorite cafe. She said, “You could buy different plants. Or kill it. Have you tried iguana tamales?” Finally, I approached my landlord. I figured other tenants might be having the same problem. She said, “Around here we eat them. They are great in tamales.” And then with hungry eyes she added, “If you kill it, let me know.”

Stuck between murder and a barren bush, I decided to go on the offensive. The iguana had gotten the stick. It was time he got the bristles.

The following day, I allowed the iguana to emerge from his hiding place and lounge on my balcony beneath the midday sun. When his scaly eyes began to droop, I moved in. I lowered the broom through the open window. I hesitated. Was I a hunter? Could I kill? I glanced at my flowerless bougainvillea. Enough, I thought. Enough. I gave him the bristles! I swept him over the edge! I watched my enemy spiral into oblivion and heard him thud against the sidewalk below. I pulled my broom back with a grim smile of satisfaction. He had fallen four floors. There was nothing left to do but collect the body.

I grabbed a plastic garbage bag and went downstairs. I opened the door and with near hysterical disbelief, I said, “No! No! No!” He was alive. More than that, he seemed awakened by the tumble. I stepped forward and he scurried around the building. He moved faster than I had ever seen him move. I stood on the sidewalk, holding my empty plastic bag, wondering if my enemy was immortal or just immune to the laws of physics.  

I wanted to believe that I had scared him. I wanted to believe that he would stay away. But I knew that I hadn’t and I knew that he wouldn’t. I checked the balcony obsessively. I worked in fits and starts. Anytime the ocean breeze rustled my flowers, I was on my feet, broom in hand, ready for battle. And then he returned. He crept into the sun, eyeing my flowers and licking his lizard lips. I gave him the bristles again. Again, he spiraled into oblivion. Again, he was unfazed.

This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. I ran downstairs and swept him into the middle of the street. A group of tourist girls eating at the corner restaurant started yelling at me, “Leave him alone! Don’t hurt him!” I said, “Callense gringas!” and kept on sweeping. The construction workers heard the commotion and came running out of the house whooping and clapping. They said, “Get it! Eat it!” I swept that immortal bastard down the street and around the corner. I would have swept him straight to the next beach but I ran out of road. I strutted back to my apartment sure that I had won.

He stayed away for a long time. I grew complacent. I went to Oaxaca for the Day of Dead Festival. I took day trips along the coast. I explored Puerto Escondido; confident that my flowers would continue to grow. And they did. They bloomed pink and beautiful. And the moment that I looked at them and thought, life is good, that sonofabitch came back.  

He crawled out of his hiding place and across my couch--while I was sitting on the couch! I jumped up and went straight for the broom. He ran into my bedroom and hid under the bed. I jabbed him and he scurried into the corner. He sat on top of my laundry basket and for some reason that riled me up even more. I jabbed him again. He bolted for the bathroom. I whacked him with the broom and knocked him out cold!

I was not about to leave an unconscious iguana lying on my bedroom floor, so I took a handful of paper towels and picked him up by the tail. He woke up and hissed at me. He bent upwards trying to bite me! I panicked! I threw him through an open window. I threw him hard and far. I winced; waiting for the sound of screeching brakes or screaming tourists. Silence. I crept to the corner and peeked out from behind the curtains. The streets were empty. And then I saw him, my immortal foe, glaring up at me from the street below.

And so it goes.

I have been quiet about my life here. I wasn’t trying to hide the good or bury the bad. I just didn’t want to say anything until it felt more real. Puerto Escondido, much like my apartment, began as an empty space absent memories or times gone by. It was a place that I hoped would eventually become a long-term home--a place that would reflect me and my approach to life. And it can be. I know that now.

The only thing left to do is to live with passion, curiosity and awareness of the moment.

Because my enemy is out there; waiting for the day when I am lounging in the sun and he is holding the broom.

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